My latest kick is the films of Thelma Todd. I first developed a crush on her decades ago from the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Having been recently reminded that she actually did a huge amount of work (in a tragically short life), I’ve been seeking out more of it. While far from a complete filmography, a surprisingly large amount of her work is available on YouTube. The first two I tried, I didn’t stick with long enough to see her part, but the third was worth completing, and then talking about.
Corsair (1931), directed by Todd’s boyfriend Roland West, was surprising in a number of ways. For a start, the title, combined with an opening shot of a sailing ship, led me to believe I was getting a classic pirate movie. Piracy does eventually feature, but we START with… a contemporary (to 1931) football game?
Chester Morris plays John Hawks, an all American quarterback from the Midwest, and a rising star. He’s planning on a steady job as a football coach, when he has the misfortune of catching the eye of spoiled heiress Allison Corning (Thelma Todd). She knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. Hawks’s resistance to her charms only makes her want him more. (Speaking as a Guy, I feel compelled to note that those charms include a very nice translucent shirt with no bra under it – pre-Code for the win!)
Allison arranges for John to be employed in her father’s Wall Street financial firm. He adapts well at first, but after a year, decides that he can no longer stomach selling junk bonds to widows (literally). Instead, using some contacts he has picked up over that year, he’s going into a much more straightforward profession: piracy on the high seas!
Well, sort of. He’s found out that his former boss, in addition to his other unethical dealings, wholesales a lot of booze from criminals (these are Prohibition times). A rich friend provides a boat, and some criminals on the inside provide information on delivery times. John hijacks the booze, then sells it BACK to Allison’s father for both financial gain and the satisfaction of cheating the old skinflint.
There is an extended subplot involving the two criminals who are working with John, during which the film ventures into what I would have to call proto-noir territory. Lots of sharp shadows and murky morals. The relationship between the two frays under the extreme stress and danger of their doublecross, but even as they cynically snipe, their love for each other shines through. Especially good work here by actress Mayo Methot.
Sadly, once that subplot is over, the film seems to settle in to a fairly conventional final act. The final confrontation between John and the criminals is serviceable, but little more than that. Allison’s father turns out to be slightly less slimy then he looked, and hires John back as a company president.
We end on a kiss between John and Allison, though a somewhat ambiguous one. It is certainly possible to stick with the surface reading that she is renouncing her wild ways for properly meek womanhood and True Love. On the other hand, it seems equally valid to read the scene as Allison using her devious feminine wiles to finally overcome John’s resistance. I expect they will have an interestingly stormy marriage, regardless.
While I can’t recommend it unreservedly, the early scenes with Thelma Todd are great, as are the noir-ish sequences in the middle.
- “So you wanna play pirate?” Corsair (1931)